E is for Empire
The idea of a galactic empire is an old one in science fiction. I suppose I first came across it in Star Wars, but Star Wars got it from the old Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, or from one of the many pulp fiction writers who built their own imperiums in the sci-fi magazines of the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.
That combination of unimaginably advanced technology – starships! robots! – with an archaic society has always had a kind of goofy charm, and when I started writing my own space story that was one of the first things I put in. The idea of ancient space stations which have been the home of some powerful family for generations seemed tantalising, and so did the question of how you could run an empire when great gulfs of space separated its different provinces.
But I wanted the world of Railhead to be a relatively untroubled one, so I didn’t need a cruel or evil or aggressive empire, more an old, slow, sleepy one, set in its ways and pretty stable. I remembered Stefan Zweig’s description of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire – ‘neither politically ambitious nor particularly successful in its military ventures’ – at the start of his great memoir The World of Yesterday:
Everything in our Austrian Monarchy, then almost a thousand years old, seemed built to last… Everything in this wide domain was firmly established, immovably in its place, with the old Emperor at the top of the pyramid, and if he were to die the Austrians all knew (or thought they knew) that another emperor would take his place, and nothing in the well-calculated order of things would change. Anything radical or violent seemed impossible in such an age of reason.
(from Anthea Bell’s translation, pub. Pushkin Press)
So my vague fragments of knowledge about the Austro-Hungarian Empire became a sort of touchstone for the Network Empire in Railhead. It’s not a particularly fair or equal society, but its unfairness is so time-honoured that nobody thinks about it much, and the occasional rebellions and dynastic conflicts which break out are quickly settled. The Hapsburg emperors thought they had been appointed by God, but the emperors who rule the Network Emperor really are watched over by gods – or god-like Artificial Intelligences, at least, who can be expected to step in if the human rulers try doing anything to cruel or stupid.
Of course, for all its grandeur and long history, the Austro-Hungarian Empire didn’t last. By 1914 it was really just a dried out husk, with all sorts of hidden flaws and stress-points of which the young Stefan Zweig was mostly unaware. One gunshot in Sarajevo was enough to start it crumbling. Four years later, it was in pieces. I suspect the Network Empire might turn out to be just as fragile. In Railhead, all seems well: peace reigns, and the avuncular Emperor Mahalaxmi XXIII tours the stations of his realm aboard his miles-long train. But perhaps one day it will all disintegrate, and people will look back upon those times as a lost golden age…